By Celia Coates
Let’s begin with a story from Fred Hageneder:
“As a teenager, a stupid but provocative remark upset me so much that, thinking I could bear life no longer, I set off on my bicycle in search of solitude. I sat down among the scattered birch trees of the wetlands, overwhelmed by despondency. After a while, a movement behind me suddenly caught my attention. I turned around to discover that I was leaning against a young birch tree. My eyes followed its trunk into the sky, and at the same time my soul was lifted too. I tilted my head back and sat with my spine following the gentle movements of the tree swaying in the breeze. As I did so a great sense of peace filled my soul, and my mind was liberated from its emotional cage. At that moment, I felt as if there were only myself and an invisible power on the Earth, of which the birch tree was a visible representative.”
The story continues:“I felt that my life could not be beautiful without the existence of something greater and wiser than me. I looked to the tree again and unconsciously surrendered to its divine source of inspiration. Soon after, my life changed completely, I discovered my talents, my beliefs, my direction and my optimism.”
Hageneder went on to become an artist, harpist, and writer. His lovely book – THE SPIRIT OF TREES: Science, Symbiosis, and Inspiration – was published in 2001.
Few people in America today turn to Nature for solace. Millions of us don’t live near woodlands, or even large clusters of trees. We have been captivated by technology and what we search for is information, not peace or inspiration. Of course smart phones, tablets, laptops, and streaming devices bring us many, many benefits – but now in the 21st century, we are sadly out of balance. Too much screen time is affecting our physical and mental health. Although most of the research has focused on the negative effects for children, studies have shown it can damage adults too, resulting in changes in brain structure, eye strain and potential damage to the retina, poorer cognitive performance, decrease in emotional processing, and lowered life expectancy. These problems are not caused by simply sitting still for too long:
“So it’s not just the sedentary lifestyle; it’s something about screen viewing itself that causes our bodies to work less well. If you want to live longer, get fitter, have a healthier heart and be able to talk to your friends properly, it seems that logging off social media immediately and going for a long, long walk might be your best option.” *
But we have to do more than take a walk. Recovering from too much screen time takes more than physical exercise outdoors, although that is a good start. Real re-balancing calls for several levels of re-connection. We are very smart animals, but we are animals. We can begin by taking care of our physical selves and discovering our connections to the natural world.
An early study (1984) by environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich that used strict research standards (experimental controls and quantified health outcomes), was described by Deborah Franklin:
“Ulrich and his team reviewed the medical records of people recovering from gallbladder surgery at a suburban Pennsylvania hospital. All other things being equal, patients with bedside windows looking out on leafy trees, on average, healed a day faster, needed significantly less pain medication and had fewer post-surgical complications than patients who instead saw a brick wall.” **
We need to relate to the natural world for our own health. We also need to raise our eyes from our always present devices and relate to each other. We are losing our ability to have a sense of “the other” when we spend too much time on the island of me-and-my-screen. We become unbalanced when we connect to the people around us just through social media.
It’s necessary also to be aware of our great inter-connectedness with the natural world of which we are a part. So – perhaps – we could glimpse something here that we share with trees. They might be more like us than we ever imagined:
“Trees have been shown to undergo physical changes at night that can be likened to sleep, or at least the day/night cycles seen in smaller plants. Branches of birch trees droop by as much as 10 centimetres at the tips towards the end of the night.” ***
In Brazil people are learning that they cannot thrive if they do not respect the natural world. There’s been an unexpected effect of the deforestation in the Amazon rain forest – drought and the development of ghost towns.
“Large forests play a crucial role in generating dependable amounts of rainfall. Trees take up moisture from the soil and transpire it, lifting it into the atmosphere. A fully grown tree releases 1,000 liters of water vapor a day into the atmosphere: the entire Amazon rain forest sends up 20 billion tons a day. The water vapor creates clouds, which are seeded with volatile gases like terpenes and isoprene, emitted by trees naturally, to form rain. These water-rich banks of clouds travel long, wind-driven distances, a conveyer belt for the delivery of precipitation that scientists call flying rivers.” ****
Those flying rivers are part of world-wide weather. Hageneder wrote that “Trees and humans stand and fall together.” We need them, and they need us to value and care for them.
Full recovery from too much screen time begins with maintaining our physical health and then can expand to gaining an awakened awareness of many levels of reality. We don’t have to give up our devices – they are a superb source of many kinds of information.
But, we need to leave room in our lives for the kind of openness that can connect us to what is “greater and wiser” than we are. Perhaps old practices could help – meditation, yoga, and time spent in nature. We might discover new territories in ourselves and whole worlds beyond ourselves. There’s an old saying, “What gets your attention gets you.” We can choose what gets our attention.
At the end of his book Hageneder says:
“(T)he trees and other natural forces … can inspire us again, to express ourselves and relate consciously to all life forms.”
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*JRThorpe, Oct 26, 2015 BDG Media Inc. https://bustle.com/articles/117838-5-things-too-much-screen-…
**Scientific American, March 1, 2012, “Hospital Gardens Turn Out to Have Medical Benefits”, Deborah Franklin
***New Scientist, 17/24/31 December 2016Benefits”, Deborah Franklin
****The New York Times, Jim Robbins, Oct 9, 2015